The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen are in Seattle

While I do love my small town living in Ashland, Oregon, population 21,000, Bob and I also love getting away to the “big city.” In the big city, I can safely go to the grocery store in my sweat pants first thing in the morning, before I’ve brushed my teeth, and not run into five people I know. I’m not in any way suggesting I do this, I’m just saying I can do this. If I wanted to.

Thus, the fact that our two daughters live in Portland and Seattle respectively means we have an excellent excuse to visit two of my favorite cities in the Pacific Northwest. We were recently in Seattle, and got to take advantage of its many splendors. On a sunny day, I completely understand why Seattle is nicknamed the Emerald City. I’m a sucker for a city by the water, and with the sunshine glinting off the blue bay, Seattle sure has that one down.

Emily lives in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood, and a short two-block walk from her apartment building is Kerry Park, with its absolutely stunning views of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, and Elliott Bay. I often try and start a visit to Emily with a walk to Kerry Park, just to breathe in the beauty of Seattle and its surrounding waterways. From there, I like to take a spin through the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood. The old (and new) homes are gorgeous, and I love to wander residential streets and look at front doors, porches and front gardens. I’d look at back decks, backyards, and kitchens too if I was just a little more confident of talking my way out of a trespassing charge and of jumping fences.

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletter, you know there are two things I love to do, walk and eat, and not necessarily in that order. One of my favorite Seattle food haunts is Salumi, a sandwich shop and producer of cured meats. I realized on my last trip that I’ve bought a Salumi sandwich on my last three visits to Seattle in a row, so I must really like it. Salumi has been around for 20 years, and the grandfather of the original owner—who is the father of chef Mario Batali—opened an Italian grocery store in Seattle 100 years earlier. Their hot and cold sandwiches are outstanding, and they are generous with tastings of their cured meats to help customers decide what they’d like to order.

Recently Emily and I bought sandwiches at Salumi, then took them on the ferry to Bainbridge Island, a beautiful 30 minute ride across Elliott Bay. The views of Bainbridge and back to Seattle are amazing, and for an $8.50 fare (the way back is free!), it is well worth your time just for the ferry ride alone. I really only saw the downtown of Bainbridge Island, which is a very cute three-ish block retail and restaurant neighborhood. I’m sure the Island has much more to offer, but we chose to walk the downtown area, then wander a bit along the water, before heading back to Seattle. Homes along the waterfront on Bainbridge Island are also beautiful to gawk at. Once again, I’d love to get closer, but for those nasty trespassing laws.

I have to admit to loving a very touristy part of Seattle too, Pike Place Market. If given the opportunity, I’m happy to take a quick wander through the market and check out the food and craft booths. A couple of favorite stops include Rachel’s Ginger Beer (thanks to Emily for turning me on to this delicious non-alcoholic drink), the donut robot at Daily Dozen Donuts—with hot and fresh mini donuts, and Sarah’s favorite, the Johnson Berry Farm jam stall. I also enjoy a meander past the famous fresh fish stall, but it’s usually packed with people waiting for the popular fish toss.

Emily works in East Lake Union, and with my love of the water, I was delighted to eat Salumi sandwiches on another Seattle visit with Sarah and Bob down by the houseboats on the Lake. I’m a lover of a good rom/com, and can’t help but remember Tom Hanks living on a houseboat in Seattle in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. When Meg Ryan comes out to see him, and they miss each other right near the houseboats, sigh…..But I digress. The houseboats are beautiful, and although I don’t see myself living in one, I sure like to look at them.

One last tidbit that I’d recommend is the Center for Wooden Boats, on South Lake Union. The Center boasts a museum, which wasn’t open when I stopped by, but there are old wooden docks with beautiful historic wooden boats tied up that you can wander around and admire. The location is stunning, and with seaplanes docked nearby, I found myself gasping out loud once or twice at the beauty of it all.

Thankfully, with Emily calling Seattle home, I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to check out more of Seattle’s top spots. And to go to the grocery store before I’ve brushed my teeth too.

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Basic Economy Fares Severely Limit Carry-Ons

Last month I flew to Los Angeles for three nights for a “sister weekend” with my sister Teresa. I chose United’s Basic Economy fare, because it just seemed wrong to pay $241 for a roundtrip ticket from Medford to Los Angeles when I could get one for $198. This meant, however, that I was not allowed to take a full-sized rolling carry-on onto the plane. I was limited to one “personal item” that could be no larger than  17” x 10” x 9.” My bag would have to fit underneath my seat on the plane, or I would have to pay a checked bag fee of $30, plus a $25 gate handling fee, or as I like to call it, a “you broke the rules” fee.

Could I do it? Could I pack everything I would need into a personal item? Challenge accepted United Airlines. And yes, I was able to fit everything I needed for the weekend (including a hardbound book!) into a Baggallini Avenue Tote—note my bragging photo at left. Everything, that is, except my deodorant, which I forgot. Sorry Teresa. I even wore two light sweaters, one on top of the other. A little hot perhaps, but smart, right? That and the fact that I didn’t have deodorant with me was only a slight cause of concern.

I got to the airport to get my boarding pass, because with a United Basic Economy ticket, you are not allowed to check in online ahead of time, as the desk agent must see the size of your bag. You also cannot pick a seat in advance, and are instead assigned whatever is left when you check in. As I suspected, the United desk agent did not pay any attention to my bag when he handed me my boarding pass. I worried my outstanding packing and sweatiness would be for naught.

But fear not. At the gate, when those in the cheapest seats were finally allowed to board—Basic Economy Passengers like myself—the gate agent checked out every personal item bag with the eyes of a hawk, and pulled several people aside for trying to carry-on two bags, or for a personal item bag that was too big. And she made them pay too.

I definitely couldn’t fly Basic Economy if I were going to a cooler climate, or on a trip for longer than three or four days. One carry-on, yes. But a personal item only? It’s not easy. Although I didn’t care where my seat was on the plane (second to last row, both directions), I didn’t love waiting until I arrived at the airport to get my boarding pass. I much prefer to talk to as few people as possible and get all my ducks in a row ahead of time online. But if the price is right, and your kind sister is willing to share her deodorant with you, it might just be worth it. On this trip, it definitely was worth it for me.

25 Years of Fun and Adventure at Travel Essentials

When Bob and I rolled into Ashland, Oregon in our orange Volkswagen bus 25 years ago, at the end of a five month honeymoon odyssey around the United States, it would be pretty safe to say that we didn’t think we’d soon move to Ashland and open up a retail travel store. In fact, it would be pretty safe to say that Bob and I had no idea what we might do in the future. We didn’t have jobs, didn’t have a place to call our own (outside of the awesome camper van), and hadn’t really thought much past our honeymoon. Oh youth, I miss you. We did know that we didn’t want to live in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area, and didn’t want to work for “the man.”

With no market research, and nary a thought about how one goes about opening and running a retail store, we decided to move to Ashland and open and run a retail store. Because, why not? We saw a tiny travel store on our big road trip, and knowing that we both loved to travel we thought, “hey, this looks easy and fun. We should do this.” So we pulled up the few stakes we had left in the Bay Area, rented a U-haul for the free furniture our families had gifted us, and moved on up to the quaint Shakespearean town of Ashland.

We leased a storefront in the old Anderson Pharmacy – across the street from our current location – complete with a soda fountain counter and stools in the back. I wish I had a photo of us from the first day we opened, but we were too busy making sales. Yep, we brought in $64.48 that day. So you’ll have to be satisfied with these photos of our honeymoon, because that’s what ultimately brought us to Ashland in the first place.

We quickly learned how to buy merchandise, and bought a seemingly huge amount of books and maps, which in hindsight filled about a quarter of the store. And we learned that when you own a small business, you are the buyer, you’re the salesperson, you’re the janitor, the seamstress, the decorator, the painter, the accountant, the clothes steamer, the newsletter writer, etc., etc. Easy and fun? – Fun definitely, but not always easy. But never too hard.

Amazingly, here it is 25 years later. We’re still the buyer, the salesperson, the janitor, the seamstress…..you get the idea. But we have a wonderful staff helping us out, so thankfully we’re not doing it all on our own. And I daresay, it has gotten easier and even more fun. Everyday we get to visit with great customers who recount their fascinating adventures. And we’re fortunate that we occasionally get to take outstanding trips of our own.

Buck Owens sang, “It takes people like you to make people like me.” And that’s the truth. What we do only works because of people like you who offer a remarkable combination of loyalty to their city and its inhabitants, and a passion for visiting and experiencing people and cultures around the world. And that’s quite a mix. Hats off to you all.

Don’t Let Your TSA PreCheck Expire!

I am a busy woman, okay? I’ve got books piled up on my nightstand, waiting to be read. I’ve got a stack of New Yorker magazines gathering dust on the living room end table. There are recipes I want to try, hikes I want to take, and then there’s that pesky job waiting for me too. I tell you all this to offer up an excuse for why I didn’t realize until last Friday that my five year Global Entry membership expires in three weeks. Whoops.

I do vaguely remember getting an email about this some time ago, and I’m sure I told myself that there was plenty of time to renew. Well, time is now clearly running out for me to get my handy dandy TSA Pre-Check on each flight I take in the next few months.

Once I realized that my procrastination had gotten out of hand, I hastily got into my account on the Trusted Traveler website and filled out my online renewal. Among other things, I had to list every country I have visited since 2014. (Note to self: keep better records.) It’s possible I may have forgotten one country. Will this throw a wrench into my renewal? To be determined. After several screens of questions, I was able to pay my renewal fee of $100, and send in my renewal application. It’s unclear if I’ll have to do another in-person interview at a Global Entry office. It’s also unclear how long the renewal process will take. Some take a few weeks, others longer. It appears I might be able to keep my Global Entry membership while my application is under review, even after my current one expires. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

So if you’ve got TSA PreCheck or Global Entry – and if you’re a frequent traveler, why don’t you? – do yourself a favor and check the expiration date of your membership. Don’t wait until the last minute to renew. Let us hope the TSA gods shine favorably upon me.

Red Light District Tours Banned in Amsterdam

On our trip to Amsterdam last winter, Bob and I walked on more than one occasion through its “notorious” Red Light District. It’s so notorious that the first time, I didn’t even realize we’d entered it until we walked past a glass door lit up with red lights. I’ll admit, I still didn’t get it. Until we walked by a second door lit the same way. Then I clued in to what was going on. Quick on the uptake, eh?

Amsterdam is proud of its liberal attitude towards prostitution and soft drugs. Marijuana shops and prostitution legally take place right in the historic downtown area, with no shame or disgrace. From our Rick Steves guidebook, we learned that Amsterdam employs nearly a thousand prostitutes. Prostitution was legalized in 2000, and there are rules and even taxes.

On our second and third walks that included the Red Light District, I tried to pay a little more attention to my surroundings, and without staring, noticed that women of all ages work in the trade, and in most cases, appeared a little bored while waiting for work. Most were on their phones, texting or perhaps perusing social media or the news. It was way more mundane than I expected it to be. Granted, we were there in the middle of the day or early evening each time, and it was also the dead of winter. I’m guessing things get busier later in the evening, and when the weather is warmer as well. But most people passing through seemed to pay little attention to the workers.

Apparently, that’s not always the case, because as of January 1, 2019, Amsterdam has banned guided tours of the Red Light District. This should come as a surprise to no one, but gawking tourists are apparently bad for business. And an Amsterdam city council member says it is no longer acceptable to see sex workers as a tourist attraction. Overall, Amsterdam is struggling with the number of tourists in its city. Residents say it is increasingly harder to live and work there. Organized tours for the rest of the city have changed as of January 1 as well, with the maximum number of people on a tour being limited to 15, when previously the maximum was 20.

It’s A Nice Day for a White Wedding

When Bob and I got married 26 years ago, we had a very traditional wedding. I wore a beaded white gown with a long train, Bob wore a tuxedo, we had about 175 people in attendance, sitting respectively on the side of the bride and of the groom. We had the typical flower bouquets, wedding guest book with plume pen, first dance, and more.

I look back on that time, and although I wouldn’t say I have regrets (really Bob, I’m not saying that), I can say that if I had to do it all over again, I would likely do things a little differently. I’m not a beaded white gown with a long train kind of gal. Bob is not a tuxedo kind of guy. We’re really more of the backyard barbecue party throwing kind of people. But we—really I, because Bob seriously talked about a backyard barbecue at the time—felt like I had to follow along with how things are “supposed to be” rather than how I might have preferred them to be.

Thus when Bob and I were in San Miguel de Allende recently, and we came upon a wedding procession, being led by a mariachi band and a donkey, and with everyone dressed in decidedly non-traditional wedding garb, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous. Granted the soon to be newlyweds were about the age Bob and I are now, not the 20-somethings we were then. But I was still a little jealous.

We caught the parade as they ambled through Juarez Park early in the evening, with the band leading the way. In addition to the musicians and the donkey, the procession also included two Mojigangas, the giant puppets that accompany nearly every San Miguel de Allende procession, dancing along with the party. Once the group left the park and started walking along the narrow, cobblestone streets, car traffic stopped as the revelers danced their way towards a downtown restaurant. With the beautiful streetlights of San Miguel and its stunning architecture all around, it was quite a scene. We didn’t appear to be the only hangers on to the party. And I’m only a tiny bit disappointed that the family didn’t invite us in once they arrived. We did however, get to hear one final mariachi tune as the bride and groom and their families stood at the door of the restaurant dancing and swaying to the music. When we waved goodbye to them as they went inside, I wasn’t crying, my eyes were just watering because the procession kicked up a lot of dust into the air.

When Weather Delays Force a Change of Mind and a Change of Plans

Late last year, United Airlines offered a deal where you could book a winter trip to Europe for greatly discounted miles. As we didn’t have a trip organized yet, Bob and I jumped at the chance to fly round trip to Paris for 46,000 miles each (instead of the usual 80,000) last month. We figured we’d spend just under two weeks abroad, dividing our time between Paris and London. We bought round trip EuroStar “Chunnel” tickets to get us back and forth between the two cities. We also booked, and paid for, our lodging: a hotel in Paris and an Airbnb in London. And we were ready to go.

Unfortunately, however, weather conditions here on the West Coast threw a small wrench into our plans. Our departure coincided with the beginning of Snowpocalypse 2019, where much of the West received very wintery weather, including snow in Seattle and Los Angeles, and rain, wind and flooding in San Francisco, where we were connecting from Medford to Paris. We woke up on the day of our departure to a text from United informing us that our Medford/San Francisco flight had been cancelled, due to weather in SF. When I tried to rebook online, the United site said “we can’t find any flights to Paris for you, please call the United Help Desk.”  Uh-oh.

We called United, and they rebooked us on a flight out of Medford later that day, still through San Francisco. This meant we would miss the connection to our Paris flight, but we’d get onto another flight late in the evening, and arrive in Paris at 5pm the next day, instead of 10am. Not too bad, we thought. We’d still make our 8pm dinner reservations in Paris.

Well when we got to the Medford airport, about 50 minutes before our flight, we were informed, via text once again, that our second flight had been cancelled as well. We went for help to the United desk, and learned that the San Francisco airport had cancelled more than 100 flights that day, most of them the small planes from little airports like Medford. According to the agent, who was actually a really nice guy, only international flights were getting in and out. The cancellations were all “due to weather,” although the United agent told us that one runway was closed at SFO, which had nothing to do with the weather.

So what were our options? Ideally, we didn’t want to book another flight through San Francisco later that day, figuring it would likely be cancelled. United wasn’t willing to book us on another airline, as our tickets were “economy frequent flier.” Bob confirmed that if we had purchased tickets with cold hard cash, United would have been more willing to help us, even though, as he kindly pointed out to the agent, if we had enough United miles to book tickets to Europe, arguably, we are good United customers, and United should want to take care of their good customers. Unsurprisingly, Bob got nowhere with that observation.

Long story long, we were re-booked through Denver, for a flight five long hours later, where we had to spend the night (on our dime of course, as our cancellations were due to “weather”). We then flew out the next day to Paris, arriving 24 hours later, and losing one night of our pre-booked and pre-paid hotel.

It was disappointing to lose a day of our 12-day trip, and of course, it cost us money. But the truth is, there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We couldn’t get out of Medford any sooner than we did. We weren’t going to cancel our trip, and lose out on all the money we had paid for lodging in Paris and London, as opposed to just the one night. So we mentally recalibrated and decided that “it is what it is”. We stayed a night in Denver, and walked to a nearby bar & restaurant for a beer and nachos (not perhaps the French food we were expecting to eat), and were treated to a so-horribly-bad-it-was-good karaoke performance of “The Sound of Silence.” Oh, the irony. We wouldn’t have gotten that in a fancy Paris restaurant, that is for damn sure.